It is the word ‘pootling’ that makes this for me: I’ve been in this car, on this road, and that’s the verb that puts me there.
The drive didn’t take long but it was harrowing. Bunches of dead flowers were propped up at several turnins, marking the sites of fatal crashes. Merki took it slow, pootling along at forty, hitting fifty on straight stretches. A queue of cars lined up behind him, drivers who were familiar with the route forming an angry tailgated convoy, trying to embarrass him into hurrying along. He remained calm, checking them in the mirror, pulling over as much as he could to let them overtake, meeting their displays of aggression with a gentle raised hand and admonishments to ‘calm yourself down, pal.’
–THE LAST BREATH, by Denise Mina
Happy Fourth of July, ye who celebrate!
This is a bit of an infodump, but it’s also a good observation about human nature, wittily expressed. This is the ‘spoonful of sugar’ method of infodumping: you share the desired knowledge and make it fun by adding humor.
[Morrill] Goddard’s more daring assertions begin from the premise that it is hard to make people think. He agrees that the power of abstract thought is the highest human faculty, but he nevertheless sees a lot of flattery in the notion that man is a rational animal. In Goddard’s observation, people are far more interested in their sense perceptions and emotions than in their thoughts. He sees nothing particularly wrong or shameful in this, but puts it down to the fact that we have been sensing, feeling and emoting since we lived in caves, while we have only lately begun to cultivate our rational faculties, public education and mass literacy being last minute innovations in the life of man. Thus, while all mankind is capable of rational thought, most of us only use it with deliberate effort, after a good night’s sleep, and for remuneration. Even then, our efforts are often halfhearted and the results mixed.
Kenneth Whyte, THE UNCROWNED KING: THE SENSATIONAL RISE OF WILLIAM RANDOLPH HEARST
Voice, characterization, backstory, all in two lovely and quite-dense paragraphs.
Since Olivia got sense and kicked me out, I live on the quays, in a massive apartment block built in the nineties by, apparently, David Lynch. The carpets are so deep that I’ve never heard a foodstep, but even at four in the morning you can hear the hum of five hundred minds buzzing on every side of you: people dreaming, hoping, worrying, planning, thinking. I grew up in a tenement house, so you would think I’d be good with the factory-farm lifestyle, but this is difference. I don’t know these people; I never even see these people. I have no idea how or when they get in and out of the place. For all I know they never leave, just stay barricaded in their apartments, thinking. Even in my sleep I’ve got one ear tuned to that buzz, ready to leap out of bed and defend my territory if I need to.
The décor in my personal corner of Twin Peaks is divorce chic, by which I mean that, four years on, it still looks like the moving van hasn’t arrived yet. The exception is Holly’s room, which is loaded with every fluffy pastel object known to man. The day we went looking for furniture together, I had finally managed to wrestle one weekend a month out of Olivia, and wanted to buy Holly everything on three floors of the shopping center. A part of me had believed I’d never see her again.
Tana French, FAITHFUL PLACE
Sunday’s word count was 385, for a total of 4,498. My Clarion West Write-A-Thon page is here.
What I like most about this is I feel the imagery sets a very particular, chilly and winter-hued tone:
He knew it was regarded as one of the loveliest Tudor manor houses in England and now it was before him in its perfection of form, its confident reconciliation of grace and strength; a house built for certainties, for birth, death and rites of passage, by men who knew what they believed and what they were doing. A house grounded in history, enduring. There was no grass or garden and no statuary in front of the Manor. It presented itself unadorned, its dignity needing no embellishment. He was seeing it at its best. The white morning glare of wintry sunlight had softened, burnishing the trunks of the beech trees and bathhing the stones of the manor in a silvery glow, so that for a moment in the stillness it seemed to quiver and become as insubstantial as a vision. The daylight would soon fade; it was the month of the winter solstice.
THE PRIVATE PATIENT, by P.D. James
Here is the lovely chapter one opener of Louise Marley’s The Brahms Deception. (The book has a short prologue, too.)
Roses spilled over the garden wall surrounding Casa Agosto, blooms of scarlet and pink and white blazing against the pale stone under impossibly bright Italian sunshine. Below the village of Castagno, forests and fields glittered faintly, as if washed in gold. Here and there, grapevines stretched and twisted in long, straight columns. In the valley beyond, a brown ribbon of road meandered along the blue line of a narrow stream. The Italian hills looked like bolts of dark green velvet, rolling gently from the ancient hilltop where twelve houses, each named for a month of the year, clustered along cramped streets. The houses were tall and narrow, trimmed with window boxes and surrounded by small gardens. Saints’ niches pierced the outer walls, their tiny statues nestled amid offerings of tiny nosegays or bunches of herbs. In the garden of Casa Agosto, the branches of an ancient olive tree drooped to the grass, heavy with unripe fruit. A wooden bench, painted with a rustic scene of wooly lambs in a green field, nestled in its shade.
It was all real, Frederica reminded herself. Everything was real. Except for her.
What I like in this is that it’s classic scene-setting. We get an abundance of imagery, an opportunity to really see Casa Agosto, and to get a feel for what it–and by extension–the tone of the novel are going to be like. We get color and romance, we get two separate mentions of Italy, in case the first one goes past too quickly, and the way the first paragraph is structured also tells us that Casa Agosto itself is important. It’s not some random house the characters are going to pass through and abandon.
And then we get a Question, in the form of Frederica and her musings about her unreality. If the setting itself isn’t enough to engage us, we now get something to be curious about. It’s as though she’s let us look around before taking our hand and leading us into the scene.